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An appreciative audience was treated to a program of French music for Christmas as Voices presented its winter concert under the direction of Sue Klausmeyer. The chorus, numbering well over 100 voices was joined by a chamber orchestra (10 strings, two flutes, harp, and organ) and five vocal soloists: Soprano Lydia Rusche, Mezzo-soprano Laura Buff, Alto Meg Barber, Tenor Ryan Griffin, and Bass-baritone Sean Currlin. The proscenium’s decoration of multi-colored miniature lights and red poinsettias added beauty to the proceedings.
The concert opened with the Messe de Minuit sur des Airs de Noël (Midnight Mass on Christmas Carol Melodies), H. 9, by Marc-Antoine Charpentier (c. 1643-1704). Composed about 1690, this work is likely the first mass setting to base many of its sections on French noëls, or Christmas carols. While organ variations on popular Christmas folk tunes were greatly enjoyed, it was a bold move for Charpentier to let these secular tunes be heard so prominently in this liturgical context.
The high points of the Messe were the singing of Lydia Rusche and Ryan Griffin and the chorus’s convincing singing of the Sanctus. Balance between orchestra and chorus is almost impossible to achieve when the strings are outnumbered more than ten-to-one as they were here. When the full chorus was singing, the double bass was the only string instrument which could be clearly heard, its voice being an octave below the vocal basses. While the inclusion of notes inégales (the French Baroque practice of performing pairs of eighth-notes, e.g., as rhythmically uneven) was welcome, it was curious to hear Germanic Latin pronunciation in this quintessentially Gallic work. The electronic organ’s unyielding sounds often covered the singers and the flutists.
The chorus next sang a capella arrangements of three French carols: “Patapan," "Bring a Torch,” and “The Rarest Gift,” all sung in English. Although adorned by a drum and other small percussion played by chorus members, “Patapan” was burdened by a slow tempo which seemed contrary to its text. The best of the carols was the third, known in French as “Noël nouvelet,” as arranged by Edwin Fissinger. Perhaps inspired by Marcel Dupré’s setting of this melody in his Variations on a Noël, Fissinger’s colorful imitative choral lines and concluding “Noël!” brought the first half of the concert to a delightful end.
Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) was just 23 years old when he composed his Christmas Oratorio, Op. 12, for performance at the Parisian church of the Madeleine, where he was the organist. In ten movements, the work begins with an instrumental Prelude (to which title Saint-Saëns appended “Dans le style de Séb. Bach”). Here we heard the ten string players to best advantage, their lyrical playing of the Prelude’s pastoral-like lines joined by the organ’s oboe stop.
Particularly well-sung were “Domine, ego credidi,” with four-part women’s chorus accompanying Griffin’s tenor solo, and the full choir’s dramatic reading of “Quare fremuerunt gentes?” In appending the traditional “Gloria Patri” to this psalm text, Saint-Saëns called for the chorus to sing softly, likely as a contrast to the boisterous “raging” of the movement’s opening section; the chorus never reached the quietness which the composer specified.
Soprano Rusche’s voice was again a high point, literally and figuratively, in the seventh movement, “Tecum principium.” Her leap of a tenth to a piano high B-natural was a thing of beauty. For a translation of the text of this movement, however, look up Psalm 110:3, because the program booklet’s English rendering is completely off the mark, quoting instead from the Magnificat text. The Germanic Latin vs Italianate Latin debate continued in the ninth section, “Consurge, Filia Sion!,” where the ‘g’ of “Consurge” was sung as hard by the soprano and alto soloists and sung as a soft ‘g’ by the tenor and bass. When all five soloists sing as a quintet in this movement, we are treated to a foretaste of the operatic ensembles for which Saint-Saëns rightly became famous.
The oratorio ends with a simple yet majestic hymn of praise, its final “Alleluia,” a rousing and vibrant conclusion. The program will be repeated on Saturday, December 15 at 4:00 PM. Please see the sidebar for more information.